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AACC students’ cyber success underscores colleges’ training role

Anne Arundel Community College students’ success in a national cybersecurity competition has underscored the importance of Maryland’s community colleges in developing the workforce for the  industry.

The college performed among the best schools in the nation in the first phase of the SANS Cyber FastTrack program, which tests students’ cyber aptitude.

“The students really enjoyed participating in CyberStart Access,” said Carrie Leary, a professor in AACC’s Cybersecurity, Networking and Digital Forensics program. “They mentioned that it felt more like a game than work or a competition. They were excited to take hands-on skill learned in the classroom and put them into action in real-world scenarios within the SANS CyberStart Challenges.”

That type of participation only happens when the faculty at a school buy in to the program, said Alan Paller, director of research at SANS Institute.

“A lot of kids don’t decide to do this on their own,” he said.

Overall more than 730 students from Maryland’s four- and two-year institutions participated in the competition. The competition has three phases, the second of which wraps up this week.

Seventy-six Anne Arundel Community College students participated, with 23 advancing to the program’s quarterfinals, the most in Maryland and 16th in the nation.

The idea of the competition is to encourage students to test their aptitude at cybersecurity-related skills. It can help find people who may not realize they have the skills to succeed in the field.

As the field grows, employers are increasingly turning to two-year and certificate programs at community colleges to help develop a workforce of people who discover they have that ability. 

“Community colleges much more frequently teach how to do things rather than the theory behind how to do things,” Paller said. “In cybersecurity, the theory behind it doesn’t make you a successful cybersecurity person. It might have value long term, but it delays your effectiveness in the short term.”

Finding people with an aptitude for cybersecurity and using shorter training programs like those at community colleges can also help to find people in some underrepresented areas and get them trained in a couple of years or less.

It lends itself to both young people coming out of high school and people already in the workforce looking for a career switch.

More than 80,000 people work in cybersecurity in Maryland. The field is expected to grow by more than 30 percent by 2024.

Developing a workforce for the cybersecurity industry means that community colleges must continue to work with each other, said Michael DiGiacomo, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Development Board.

“The role of the community college is really to work collaboratively with the industry partners to develop the skills needed in the cyber workforce,” he said.

The SANS Cyber FastTrack competition has been an avenue for colleges to test students’ aptitude for cybersecurity. 

Watching people realize they have that ability can be rewarding on its own, Paller said.

“People are surprised at how good they are at it,” he said. “It’s that that makes me smile, this discovery that if you like puzzles and you’re curious and you don’t mind frustration and you’re not somebody who wants to be told everything, you have the potential to be really good at this stuff.”


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